Classy Trash: Recycled Paper Bale Colorado Home

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Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
The triangle window was a gift from one of the salvage yard owners Rich worked with. It inspired the triangle countertop and light fixtures as well as the steel table.

Residents of tiny Fraser, Colorado, a former stage stop in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, watched with mild curiosity as a truck full of baled plastic–the stuff they send off to the recycling center every week–made its way through town and turned north on County Road 50, the route to the town’s former dump. “Some guy’s going to build a house out of that stuff,” the residents recounted. Heads were shaken; eyebrows raised. Neighbors in the subdivision where the truck finally came to a halt turned out in force.

Some were intrigued and excited when Rich Messer confirmed that, yes, he and his partner, Ann Douden, were going to build their home out of plastic and paperboard bales. Skeptics stepped back disapprovingly, worrying about property values. Yet they couldn’t help themselves from watching this groundbreaking house take shape. “We became a spectacle at that point,” Rich remembers.

Rich had remodeled a good dozen homes in the past (though none from the ground up), and he carried enough guilt about their environmental impact to weigh his options carefully this time. Despite having only limited experience on a building crew, Rich planned to build this home himself. He wanted it to be both easy to build and light on the land–and also to make a contribution to the field of green building.

After rejecting straw bales and Earthships made of old tires, he stumbled onto an idea that was cutting-edge… but possibly crazy. For some time architect Doug Eichelburger, a friend of a friend who lived in nearby Larkspur, had been testing load-bearing bales made from paperboard scraps for fire resistance, insulative qualities, and ability to withstand compression. Eichelburger had built a barn out of the bales, but when he discovered that he couldn’t patent the building system, he lost interest in pursuing it further.

Rich went to Eichelburger’s snug barn to help stucco the interiors, and as he stepped into the tack room, he knew he’d found his building method. “It was March, and the tack room was noticeably warmer than the rest of the building,” he explains. “I asked Doug what he was using to heat it, and he said the discharged heat from the refrigerator.”

Supportive officials

Because building a home with paper bales requires hoisting them on top of each other with a forklift, the ideal site for a paperboard home is level and accessible. The piece of land Rich had originally purchased was neither of those things, so his first task was to find a flat lot with generous covenants. “We needed covenants that were nonrestrictive, to say the least,” he says. “That was critical–absolutely critical.”

Surprisingly, the land search proved more difficult than getting Rich’s plans for the paperboard home through the Grand County building department. Marv Fischer, who headed the department, had helped initiate Fraser Valley’s recycling program; needless to say, he was thrilled by Rich’s idea. Once Rich and Ann found a lot that met their qualifications, the home plans sailed through the approval process.

Tri-R, a Denver recycling facility that had worked with Eichelburger on his barn, saved Rich seventy bales of poly-coated kraft carrier board–laundry soap boxes–that had been treated for moisture resistance and printed on. The material was extremely clean but also very difficult to recycle because of the coating. “Much of this type of coated paperboard ends up in landfills,” Rich explains. Any kind of paperboard–except for corrugated cardboard, which is not structurally sound because it compresses–will work, he adds. “You can get paper bales from anybody who’s got a lot of volume–recycling companies in all major cities handle this stuff. Using paper bales to build with is doable anywhere but probably more applicable in the West because of the lack of moisture.”

Tri-R gave Rich the paperboard bales for free; the company was happy to be rid of them. For the home’s foundation, Rich paid two cents per pound (about $20 per bale) for twenty-eight bales made of postconsumer PVC trash: toys, laundry baskets, shampoo bottles. (He used these because they were readily available at the time, but any kind of plastic materials will work.) These he laid into a five-and-a-half-foot-wide foundation trench prepared with compacted Class C road-base stone to act as a footing.

Building and learning

For Rich and Ann, the building process was all about learning and improvising. Rich and a helper, Mike Young, raised the bales in about six weeks and stabilized them with a concrete bond beam that proved to be the most harrowing and dramatic part of the entire building process.

“Nobody in Fraser had done a bond beam like this one before,” Rich says, so he was completely on his own. He built a wooden framework atop the bales, drove rebar into them, and then poured concrete into the framework. “We didn’t know if it was going to hold or not,” he says. “It worked fine, but we didn’t know.”

Once roof trusses were set and covered with plywood, Rich’s job became much easier. “Until that time, the biggest hassle had been covering and uncovering the bales with plastic every day,” he says. “I wanted to keep the top of the bales dry so moisture didn’t pool on them and cause mildew and rot.”

Because he didn’t know whether the bales would compress, Rich hung the interior wall framing and drywall off the ceiling joist so that they would have space to move if the walls settled. “That was a hassle, and I wouldn’t do it again because there was no settling,” he says.

Sealing the envelope

Rich insulated all the interior walls for sound control, but the thirty-six-inch bale walls (which provide an insulation value of R-30) didn’t need any extra help. However, because the bales weren’t consistently square, he slid six-inch insulation between the ends during assembly to fill in gaps. He also blew sixteen inches of cellulose into the ceiling (giving it a value of R-50) and three-and-a-half inches of foam just inside the plastic foundation bales so that none of the radiant heat emanating from cables laid under the floors would be lost. As a result, the floor temperature remains a constant sixty-five degrees, though Ann points out that “you’d swear it was warmer than that.”

To fill gaps around the window openings, Rich and his crew rolled up leftover bale scraps and paper roofing materials into “burritos” and stuffed them into the cavities. “The big thing was to have no air leakage and create rounded corners for the window and door openings,” he explains.

To keep the envelope tight, he chose not to include a fireplace in the home. “Having so many ceiling intrusions–vents, can lights, plumbing stacks–in a house in snow country represents heat loss,” he says. “To me, it’s common sense to eliminate these things, but people won’t trade out their vaulted ceilings and their can lights for decreased energy consumption.”

The result is a house that’s tight and efficient; Rich and Ann’s monthly costs for electric heat in the 1,200-square-foot home average $60. “Because of the tight construction and high insulation, we don’t have any icicles or roof ice dams–unlike most houses here,” Rich says.

Grueling finish work

With the easiest (much to his surprise) part of his home-building odyssey now finished, Rich struggled to find someone willing to stucco the structure; most of the bidders who came out to look at the raggedy walls said forget about it. Stuccoing was the most expensive part of the process; it took the plasterer three weeks to hand-trowel the interior and exterior with two coats of concrete and a final colored coat of elastomeric finish. “He was real happy to see that project over with,” Rich says. “And he suggested that, next time, we trim the loose ends with a weed whacker–just give it a crew cut to make the stucco work easier.”

Rich and Ann had carefully timed the construction so that the tile floors could be laid while they were at a wedding on the East Coast. The first load of tile fell off the truck and smashed, thwarting those plans. The next two loads came from different dye lots and didn’t match up, so they had to abandon their best laid plans. After his trip, Rich and a friend did the tiling themselves, and that was the most excruciating part of the process. “The tile had to be cut to fit the lumpy exterior walls and angled interior walls–there were few straight cuts,” he says.

On a more positive note, Rich found that many subcontractors, including the plumber and the electrician, were more than willing to fit his project into their schedule, even though his house was going up during a building boom. “They did it because it was interesting, compared with normal jobs,” he believes.

In fact, after community members overcame their initial anxiety, they turned out to help at most stages. Neighbors and friends became concrete workers and swung hammers when extra hands were needed. Several people even gave tours when Rich and Ann were not on-site.

A risk well taken

Six months after he dug the first foundation trench, Rich and Ann moved into their home. And that’s where the real test came. What would living in a paper house be like?

“I don’t think we really understood the sense of comfort we’d get from that much thermal mass,” Rich says. “It’s both quiet and has a warmth I’ve never felt in other houses, a serenity we didn’t think was part of what we were building until we lived in it. It’s not an imposing space, but it’s just so comfortable in there.”

Ann loves the stillness, the softness of the walls–which she says “does wonderful things to candlelight”–and the easy living. “That stucco’s never going to need maintenance, and the tile is really easy to maintain,” she says.

Would they build a home this way again? Absolutely, Rich and Ann contend; in fact, they’re already looking for land. Although many people have expressed interest in the building method, the biggest hurdle is bankers, who just don’t like to hear about building houses with trash. “You can’t get traditional financing,” Rich laments. “That’s really the issue. You’re fighting an existing mindset.”

As for Rich, he threw his own fears out the window when he reached a certain age. “Rich always says he wouldn’t have been brave enough before he was fifty to build this house,” Ann says. “You have to be willing to challenge the system.”

“It requires a willingness to take a risk,” Rich adds. “Traditional builders told me I was really nuts, but when I was finished, they came back to admire the craft of the project.”